Raleigh backed off sidewalk-drinking restrictions. What does that mean for downtown’s future? | Wake County | Indy Week
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Raleigh backed off sidewalk-drinking restrictions. What does that mean for downtown’s future? 

After the months of heated rhetoric and name-calling, after the issue became a flashpoint in October's city elections, after a barrage of City Council and task-force meetings that stretched from spring to summer to fall, after a three-month evaluation period that saw downtown turn into something almost resembling a police state—after all of that, the ending felt anticlimactic.

Last week, with only a few minutes of discussion and little acrimony, the same Council that voted to limit sidewalk drinking in August calmly walked back some of those restrictions, voting 6–2 to extend the curfew from 1 a.m. to 2 a.m. on weekends and revisit outdoor occupancy limits and patio delineations in a couple of months. In conjunction with Council's vote to only apply fees to the parking decks on Friday and Saturday nights—instead of on all nights and weekends—downtown patrons and businesses, especially bar and restaurants owners, took the vote as vindication of their view that these increased regulations were destroying the very things that made downtown special.

"Discouraging people from doing the things they loved downtown really discouraged them from coming to our establishments," says Zack Medford, the co-owner of three downtown bars and an organizer of the group Keep Raleigh Vibrant. "With everything going on, it wasn't the most inviting place."

He and some other bar owners have reported double-digit revenue losses since Aug. 14, the day the ordinance went into effect. The losses weren't exclusive to the bars with sidewalk patios, either. David Meeker, a co-owner of the Busy Bee Cafe, says sales there have dropped, too.

Between the parking fees—which Meeker led the fight against—and the sidewalk crackdown, "it was terrible marketing for downtown," he says. The result was fewer people spending less money—or heading over to Glenwood. (Disclosure: Meeker's uncle Richard Meeker is an INDY co-owner.)

Since these are private companies, there's no way to independently verify these claims; however, an October report from the Downtown Raleigh Association found that year-to-date downtown sales tax collections on food and beverages were up 9 percent over 2014, so things weren't uniformly bad.

And there's at least some evidence the ordinance was producing the desired effect. At last week's Council meeting, emergency management and special events manager Derrick Remer noted that downtown had seen a 32 percent year-over-year reduction in quality-of-life-related crimes since the ordinance took hold. Some of the methodology was specious—does a reduction of indecent exposure arrests from seven to four really tell us anything meaningful?—but it's true that the sidewalks along Fayetteville aren't quite as mobbed as they once were, and at least some downtown residents say it's quieter now.

All of which makes Council's vote seem politically counterintuitive. After all, of Keep Raleigh Vibrant's seven Council endorsements, only two won—incumbents Bonner Gaylord and Mary-Ann Baldwin, who were never in any real danger—hardly an indication of a pro-bar groundswell. The day after the Oct. 6 election, Dean Debnam, the Raleigh businessman behind the "DrunkTown" ads that defined the campaign's closing days, declared victory: "Residents of Raleigh spoke with a clear voice on what the vision for Raleigh should be—and it is not #DrunkTown," he said in a statement to the local media. (Debnam could not be reached for comment.)

And yet even Councilor Russ Stephenson, to whom Debnam gave the maximum $5,100 this year, voted to loosen restrictions, with the caveats that the rules need more robust enforcement and the DRA needs to get more actively involved. Only Kay Crowder and the outgoing Wayne Maiorano voted no.

More by Jeffrey C. Billman

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